Cumbria’s Hidden LGBTQ+ History
Cumbria is a county rich with heritage. From Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter in the south to the ports of Whitehaven in the west and Carlisle Castle in the north of the county, Cumbria is an area of the UK that holds a strong heritage.
But little is known about our counties queer roots. This LGBTQ+ history month we invite you to celebrate little known LGBTQ+ figures in the place we call home and look at what impact they had in Cumbria.
Maureen Colquhoun: The first openly lesbian MP who fought for LGBTQ+ and Women’s Rights
Born in Eastbourne in 1928 into a single-parent family, Maureen Colquhoun attended an Eastbourne convent school where homosexuality was forbidden. In early adulthood, she attended Brighton college and went on to read economics at the London School of Economics.
Colquhoun served as the Labour MP for Northampton North from 1974 to 1979. During this time, she was one of 30 women MP’s in parliament and was a staunch feminist who wasn’t afraid to hide her sexual orientation: “I confronted the bigots in my constituency party by affirming that I was glad to be gay,” she recalled.
During her political career, she left her husband, journalist Keith Colquhoun in 1975 who was the father to her three children to move in with Barbara (“Babs”) Todd, joint editor of the lesbian magazine Sappho and live as an openly gay woman.
“The objective of letting them know where we were and how we were living was achieved,” Colquhoun wrote in her 1980 memoir, A Woman in the House.
When the press found out about her relationship with Babs, they harassed Maureen to the point where she had to complain to the now-defunct Press Council about the invasion of privacy and harassment.
The regulator rejected this – because she was not a “private person”, but an MP who had taken a strong stand on feminist issues and ruled that the identification of Todd was “a gross intrusion into privacy which could not be justified on the grounds of public interest”.
Colquhoun campaigned frequently for women’s rights and touched on social issues that are still topics of debate in wider society today such as the abolition of women’s prisons, abortion on demand, creche facilities at political conferences and the decriminalisation of prostitution, to which end she introduced the unsuccessful Protection of Prostitutes Bill in 1979.
Maureen was guaranteed publicity for her Protection of Prostitutes Bill, to decriminalise soliciting and abolish the law classifying more than two women living together as a brothel. She took 50 sex workers to the House of Commons’ packed Grand Committee Room for a public meeting the day beforehand.
The bill was granted a second reading but, before that could happen, Labour was defeated by Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1979 general election. Colquhoun, a distinctive figure in the Commons with her red hair and green two-piece suit, was one of those who lost her seat.
On Thatcher’s win, she did not see this as a progression for women’s rights in parliament. Colquhoun wrote in her memoir that she and fellow female Labour politicians “knew that Thatcher was what the American feminists call a ‘man with tits’ and would do little if nothing either for women in the House or for women outside it”.
Despite these efforts to confront bigotry and tackle major women’s rights issues, in 1977 a majority voted to deselect her as their candidate for the next election, citing her “obsession with trivialities such as women's rights”.
Although she lost her seat in a general election, she had effectively already been disavowed by the Labour party after coming out as a lesbian.
"Without her vital work advocating for women’s rights much of the laws on prostitution, abortion and sex equality within the workplace wouldn’t have been given the attention they deserve."
Colquhoun moved to Ambleside, Cumbria, in 1992 and was a member of the Lake District National Park Authority (1998-2006), campaigning for speed limits on Windermere and against the sacking of park rangers, and the Lakes Parish Council (2006-15).
Sadly Colquhoun passed away in February last year but her legacy as a staunch feminist unafraid to be herself and campaign for Women’s rights lives on.
Colquhoun dared to challenge the house of commons on many issues that were seen as taboo in the 70s and 80s and without her vital work advocating for women’s rights much of the laws on prostitution, abortion and sex equality within the workplace wouldn’t have been given the attention they deserve.
Acknowledgements: Cumbria’s queer heritage
Have you ever wanted more from your county? Now is the time to voice your opinion.
Check out our Google Forms survey here: https://forms.gle/Ppj3iNrUq9VeQQN77